Book Review: Armada by Ernest Cline
I wanted to love Armada as much as I loved Ready Player One.
I wanted Ernest Cline to defy the comparisons to The Last Starfighter and Ender's Game by crafting an original tale that would push the characters to take actions in fresh directions while retaining the nostalgic pop culture references that Cline sprinkles so well.
Sadly, these events did not happen.
This story was not as engaging as Ready Player One, but it wasn't entirely horrible. I enjoyed listening to it. Kind of.
Wil Wheaton read the audiobook! Wheaton understands the nuances of the geek references throughout Cline's writing delivering the dialogue with conviction. He also assigned various voices to different characters, which helped me identify who was who. Some of the characters were so flat that without Wheaton's performance I'm not sure I could identify which character was speaking when. Listening to this book made it bearable.
And the pop culture references and twists made me mostly Nerd Happy! I liked listening to characters debate which melee weapon was the best. In this story Star Wars was funded in part by the Earth Defense Alliance as anti-alien propaganda. Fantastic! One character took a particularly dire situation and rewrote the lyrics of The Brady Bunch theme song to incorporate some end-of-the-world details, which turned out to be pretty funny.
But that's where the goodness ends. Because there's not much more to this story.
For one thing, the nostalgic pop culture tidbits do nothing to actually move the plot forward like they did in Ready Player One. In that original story, Wade had to know obscure references to 1980s video games, movies, songs, and television because those details were potential clues to figuring out the complex easter egg puzzle. The trivia served a purpose.
Here, they're just background noise...until so much of the protagonist's inner dialogue is littered with these references that they grow too loud. Sure, they establish the connection that Zack Lightman felt to his father through these nerdy cultural observations, but really most of the references were just a way for Zack to infodump details about his family, his father's theories, and Zack's own colorful past.
And Zack's past was full of video games he had been playing and mastering. And, sure enough, wouldn't you know, one of the video games that Zack mastered was really a training program to scout elite recruits for the Earth Defense Alliance, a secret group of humans who identified an alien threat decades ago and have been covertly building bases and preparing for the imminent alien invasion.
At least The Last Starfighter had the good plot sense to make the recruiting party not from Earth. And the discovery of the Earthling recruit Alex was more of a logistics long-shot.
Cline's story expects extreme levels of suspension of disbelief just to swallow the details of the bureaucracy. How did the EDA stay secret for so long? How were they funded? How is it that someone...anyone...ever thought that human video game players would have the fortitude to actually save the world? Have you ever read Trade Chat in World of Warcraft? There's more chutzpah than honor there.
Then there's the utter lack of alarm at Earth's impending doom. Cline's story took place in one day. Yes, there's an epilogue at the end that tied together some points, but the majority of the events occurred within one day. You would think that a tight timeline would convey a sense of danger. But it didn't.
Some of this lack of suspense stemmed from the pop culture references. Some of them were so light, so breezy, that I never felt like anyone was in harm's way. That Brady Bunch theme song rewrite was funny, but it didn't make the end-of-the-world feel real. The alien threat never felt real!
And there were entirely too many schmaltzy details that had me rolling my eyes. Those moments centered around Zack discovering information about his family, so I don't want to spoil the details. Don't worry though. If you choose to read Armada, you'll see the cheese coming.
The characters were okay.
The two Mikes, who are Zack's best friends, were R2D2 and C3PO clones. And if you asked me which Mike was which, I couldn't tell you. So not very convincing clones.
The love interest Lex had a few interesting points. She had a Girl Scouts of America tattoo on her leg, which endeared her to me. And she did have a few tech tips that she taught to Zack. But then she didn't really do much.
Thankfully, her inactivity was not because she was female. None of the elite recruits did much. They were flying drones. So if their ship was destroyed, the pilot safely called up another drone from inside the secret moon base or whatever. Not exactly a diverse or robust world that was built here.
I really wish that Armada was an amazing read, but it wasn't for me.